Peter Stanford: Merger really appeals only when closure is beckoning

The prospect of joining with another charity often produces an instinctive "no", says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

My wife and I met through the informal matchmaking efforts of two friends, so I am the last person to decry the activities of such well-intentioned fixers.

Our two would-be Cilla Blacks organised our blind date on the basis that (a) we were the only two Catholics they knew, (b) that they were both Jewish, had met each other because they wanted to marry someone Jewish and therefore assumed Catholics felt the same and (c) they were in the first flush of romance and desperate to make everyone else fall in love.

What a waste of time, I remember thinking, when they excitedly blurted out their plan. A fellow Catholic was the last person I wanted to get involved with. Hadn't I spent my whole childhood and adolescence in a closed world where we boys from the Christian Brothers school were constantly being pushed, chastely, towards girls from the local convent, by teachers, parents, siblings and the parish priest?

Yet in the end I agreed to go on the date, and here we are 16 years later. Our cupids were right and I was wrong. So, yes, I fully accept that matchmakers have the potential to make you see things afresh.

But - and I'm afraid it's a big but - I couldn't resist a wry smile when I read about the plans of a charity consultancy to set up a matchmaking service to bring about mergers in our sector. The consultancy Eastside's Partner-up scheme is apparently based on feedback from the third of the UK's largest charities that have said they would consider merging.

I smiled not because I questioned the findings. Indeed, if you asked most charity chief executives and chairs whether they thought mergers were a good idea in theory, they would say yes. This would be for for all the reasons we have heard many times before, such as economies of scale, getting rid of duplication of effort, sorting out an otherwise crowded field that confuses donors and helping smaller charities preserve good work threatened by the recession.

But try putting the question another way and asking "would you like to merge with a charity that is your direct competitor?" For that is the logic of mergers - think Help the Aged and Age Concern, now Age UK.

The answer is likely to be very different. The first position, on both sides of the potential match, might be to deny the suitor in question is even a runner at all. "We might look the same, do the same and even have similar names, but we are unique, and therefore incompatible," goes the justification.

How to respond? The temptation is to get into a pantomime exchange of "oh yes you are", and "oh no we aren't". But to what purpose? What they really seem to be saying is that they are not in the right mindset to contemplate the messy, complex, time-consuming reality of merger talks. The vague theory is fine, but give them a concrete choice and they recoil.

Another option is to go over the heads of the paid staff - they have jobs to protect, after all, and will see the possibility of merger as the possibility of redundancy as well - and communicate trustee board to trustee board.

In theory, that should work better. The principal role of trustees is to make sure the user group is best served. A merger would often serve that shared user group better, for all the reasons listed above.

But then you come up against that emotional attachment many of us develop towards 'our' charities. I am as guilty as anyone. We have often grown and nurtured our charity as we might an extra child, so the thought that we will see it merged into something bigger, its unique identity lost, its headquarters potentially closed and our role as protector downgraded, feels not like a benefit but a loss.

This produces an instinctive "no". It is a bit like the father of the bride trying to stop the wedding because he can't bear to see his little girl in the arms of another man.

The only way I have seen matchmaking succeed is when sentiment, denial and emotional attachment are luxuries trustees can't afford. In this respect, Partner-up might be launching at a good time, for the twin pressures of declining revenue and increased demand for services are hitting us all.

The prospect for merger refuseniks is no longer of seeing their 'baby' swallowed up into something bigger, but of seeing it shrink or die - something all of us would do anything to avoid. "Merge or close" - that is a line to concentrate trustees' minds.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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